FIVE STAR FILMS #37: Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) by Lisa Malouf

Film posterMr Smith Goes to Washington is one of the most beloved films from Hollywood’s Golden Age. It received eleven Oscar nominations, with a win for Best Original Story. This is particularly impressive considering the stiff competition it was up against at the 1940 Academy Awards ceremony, which honoured 1939 films (see below for more on this amazing year of film making). This iconic film has been referenced in countless TV shows (including The Simpsons, The West Wing and The Cosby Show), songs, art works, and political speeches for (at time of writing) nearly 75 years. It’s the sort of film that even if you haven’t seen it, you’ll often get the reference when some ‘babe in the woods’  up against a big corrupt machine is referred to as ‘a Mr Smith’. Here are five of the many reasons why this film is so wonderful.

Frank Carpra

1. IT’S DIRECTED BY FRANK CAPRA

The brilliant Frank Capra directed nearly fifty films over his long career, and Mr Smith is among the best of them. It has so many of his trademark touches: from the ‘everyman’ leading character, to the portrayal of the pursuit to idealism, to his skill in casting brilliant character actors in extremely small or even ‘extras’ roles. In Mr Smith, as in all his films, even the characters with the 5-second scenes are totally captivating: whether it’s the switchboard lady with one line, or the press photographer who gets the close-up in a media scrum scene. There’s a certain humanity that shines through in Capra’s ‘everyday’ people. Capra’s crowd scenes are always engaging – every face tells a story, and no-one ever looks like they’re ‘just standing there like a lump’, waiting for the director to call ‘cut’.

Capra’s canon of work has copped some criticism over the years, being dubbed ‘Capra-corn’ for it’s supposedly naive and cheesy idealism. Sure, you can look it his work cynically if you want to, or you can just go with it, and enjoy the beautiful warm and fuzzy ride.

[Side note: If you're looking for a compelling read that covers film history, you can't go past Capra's fascinating autobiography The Name Above The Title. He led such an interesting life. Born at the end of the 19th century, he lived for over 90 years. During his almost half-century career, which started in silent cinema, he experienced and was directly involved in many of the major shifts in film-making].

Filibuster scene

2. GREAT LEAD CAST

This film was the second collaboration for Capra and Jimmy (James) Stewart, after You Can’t Take It With You the year before, and with 1946’s perennial Christmas (and really any time!) favourite It’s A Wonderful Life still seven years away. Stewart is perfectly cast as the naive Junior Senator who undergoes a transformative David and Goliath battle. Stewart’s Jefferson Smith is on one hand soft spoken and gentle, and on the other strong and determined, despite insurmountable odds. Smith is the idealistic ‘man-of-integrity’ Senator you wish was real, in the same was you with Jed Bartlet was a real President.

The female lead Jean Arthur is also terrific as Smith’s secretary. Her ‘sassy dame’ schtick early in the film is a joy to watch, as is her journey as she transitions from cynic to ‘fighter for a lost cause’.

Jean Arthur

3. THE SUPPORTING CAST

Mr Smith has a tremendous supporting cast. Claude Rains (3 years before his famous role as Captain Renault in Casablanca) plays his once-idealistic, now corrupt Senator with beautiful understated restraint for the bulk of the film – which makes [spoiler alert!] one explosive scene near the end of the film even more engaging and dramatic. Then there’s the delightful Thomas Mitchell (another Capra favourite) as an affable drunk newsman. There’s also fabulous character actor Beulah Bondi, who made quite a habit of playing Jimmy Stewart’s mother in a number of films.

Opening titles

4. THAT FILIBUSTER SCENE

Mr Smith‘s filibuster scene is its most famous. In this outstanding scene, it’s heartbreaking to watch Smith struggle to stand, after hours and hours of speaking, as he holds the floor if the United States Senate – refusing to yield. Stewart’s acting here is just phenomenal. The still images from this scene are so iconic that they are some of the most recognisable in film history. They show a man who looks like he’s beaten, but who’s prepared to fight on until his last breath.

Behind the scenes

5. 1939

Mr Smith also has a special claim to fame in that it comes from history’s most magnificent year of film making. You may remember some recent years where there were a number of impressive films, but seriously it would be impossible to top the 1939 honour roll. Highlights included Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Nikotchka, The Women, Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory, Stagecoach, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Goodbye, Mr Chips.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Mr Smith Goes to Washington, I urge you to do yourself a favour and check it out. And if you saw it long ago, maybe it’s time for a revisit?

Lisa Malouf Follow Lisa on Twitter @lisamalouf